Most consumers aren’t interested in details about chipsets running on their handsets. For most users, it boils down to the choice between MediaTek and Qualcomm, Clock frequency, and the number of cores. This is a beginner’s guide that shall help you avoid rookie mistakes and bring you up to speed with ‘chipset talk’ before you make any SoC related decisions.
To begin with, Application processors are brains of your smartphone which crunch numbers. A chipset is more than just your processor. A chipset or System-on-Chip (SoC) includes several other components besides processor that drive your displays, camera, GPS antenna, battery charging speed and WiFi speed et al., and impacts every aspect of your smartphone performance.
Quad-core vs. Hexa-core vs. Octa-core vs. Deca-core – The number doesn’t matter
The misconception that ‘more cores are better’ is more widespread than what you could presumably fathom. As a tech reviewer, I still run into a roughly same number of users categorically putting their faith in more cores than I did two years ago.
Chipsets are complicated. There are several variables in the equation which influence the result, like:
- What process they are based on (14 nm FinFet, 16nm FinFet, 28nm HPM, 28nm HPC+, 28nm LP, etc.) affects power efficiency
- clock frequency (1.3GHz, 1.5GHz, 2.2GHz)
- Type of cores used (Cortex A53, Cortex A72, Cortex A7, etc.)
- How the cores are arranged (All cores clocked at same frequency, or there are 2 clusters clocked at different frequency),
- Memory interface (All these cores have to communicate with the same RAM and ROM, the width of these communication channels can thus impact performance)
- Graphic Processing Unit (GPU) used
- ISP, DSP, Modem, fast charging support and other components of System on Chip (SoC)
Besides, other factors like the quality and amount of storage used, quality and amount of RAM used and software have an impact on your smartphone performance.
Since there are so many variables involved, very little can be determined merely by the number of cores themselves.
Alright, but the number of cores has to mean something. How many cores do I need?
Theoretically, more cores allow your chipset to execute more tasks in parallel. On paper, this leads to better performance and multi-tasking, but in practical life, there are several constraints. All of these cores have to share same resources like a battery, memory bus, RAM and thus more cores never mean a proportional increase in performance.
Considering the popular chipsets available today, your choice is narrowed down to quad cores, Hexa-cores, and octa-cores (and deca-core). Four good cores are sufficient for most users and thus, in today’s market where even entry level chips flaunt four cores, this isn’t a parameter worth bothering about.
iPhones have been doing fine with two cores all these years. But yes, Android Chipset makers have been under pressure to increase the number of cores. The original Moto X efficaciously used a dual core set-up, but wasn’t revolutionary enough to change industry standards.
The bottom line: More cores improve performance for heavy tasks, but this isn’t something which you should be carried away with. You might as well not bother with the number of cores.
Almost all current generation smartphone chips are essentially quad-cores
2015 was a bad year for chipsets in general, and most chipsets were plagued with one or the other random issue (haphazard transition to 64-bit computing is to blame).
Qualcomm released several octa-core or hexa-core chipsets, like Snapdragon 615, 616, 652, etc. , and all of them have 4 or 2 performance cores clocked a higher frequency and other four underclocked cores for basic day to day handling (these consume less power). Both clusters are rarely active simultaneously. So the big.LITTLE octa-core SoC is basically a quad-core chip for all practical purposes. The best of Qualcomm – the Snapdragon 820 – is also a quad-core chipset.
MeiaTek, on the other hand, believes in all eight cores clocked at the same frequency. Chipsets like MT6752, MT6753 and Helio X10 follow the same ideology, where both clusters of 4 Cortex A53 are clocked at the same frequency.
The Taiwanese company is now making amends and moving to big.LITTLE hierarchical architecture this year. Chipsets like Helio P10, Helio X20 (First deca-core chipset with cores arranged in 3 clusters) and a few others which will be ubiquitous in MediaTek powered smartphone lineup this year, all have multiple clusters clocked at different frequencies. This helps reduce battery consumption for day to day tasks.
Choice between types of cores
Now that we have established that you don’t need to worry about the number of cores let’s talk about the quality of cores.
After Android hastily transitioned to 64 Bit, choice of cores has been rather limited. Chipset makers didn’t have time to customize cores and have been using ARM’s core designs off the shelves. Almost all chipsets that we saw in 2015 used ARM’s Cortex A53 and Cortex A57 cores. The Cortex A57 will soon be replaced by upgraded Cortex A72 cores which are more power efficient and show other improvements too. All MediaTek smartphone SoCs used Cortex A53 cores in 2015, and that isn’t expected to change anytime soon.
So basically, if you are buying a mid-range or affordable handset you only get Cortex A53 cores. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 650 that will power Xiaomi Redmi Note 3 in India will bring Cortex A72 cores to mid-range price, which is something to be excited about.
Among high-end phones, most chipsets have been using a combination of Cortex A53 and Cortex A57 cores (Snapdragon 810, Exynos 7420, etc.), but in 2016, Cortex A57 will be widely replaced by better Cortex A72 cores(Kirin 950, Helio X20). Besides Qualcomm, Samsung will be using custom M1 cores in Exynos 8890, its flagship processor.
Qualcomm is back with its custom Kyro cores in Snapdragon 820. Besides Qualcomm, Samsung will be using custom M1 cores in Exynos 8890, its flagship processor.
So to crudely put it: Custom cores (Kyro + Samsung Custom M1) >> Cortex A72 >> Cortex A53 should suffice if you don’t want to explore details.
What you need to know about clock frequency
Simply put, Clock frequency is an indicator of processor speed.
Many times you will come across same chipsets clocked at different frequencies. For instance, the base variant of Xiaomi Mi5 has Snapdragon 820 clocked at 1.85 while the high-end variant has the same chip ticking at 2.15 GHz.
As Wikipedia explains it:
Semiconductor manufacturing is an imprecise process, sometimes achieving as low as 30% yield. Defects in manufacturing are not always fatal, however; in many cases, it is possible to salvage part of a failed batch of integrated circuits by modifying performance characteristics. For example, by reducing the clock frequency or disabling non-critical parts that are defective, the parts can be sold at a lower price, fulfilling the needs of lower-end market segments.
This practice occurs throughout the semiconductor industry on products such as CPUs, RAM and GPUs.
Product binning isn’t always the reason, though. Last year, several manufacturer underclocked Snapdragon 810 to avoid heating issues and to make it more power efficient. It is not uncommon for OEMs to underclock processors and GPUs for the same reasons.
Another point to note here is that in the case of big.LITTLE chipsets, only the clock frequency of high-performance cluster is advertised. For instance, 1.7 GHz Snapdragon octa-core processor, only means that four higher performance cores at clocked at 1.7, the other four which are active for day to day operations might be ticking at 1.3 GHz.
Higher clock frequency is something which significantly improves the speed at which your processor cores execute instructions, but the increase comes with a steep battery penalty.
What you need to know about GPU
GPU or Graphical Processing Unit is in charge of rendering graphics on your phone display and are important for gaming. Every GPU has its own cores and clock frequency. In smartphones, you will see Mali GPUs licensed by ARM, PowerVR licensed by Imagination Technologies or Qualcomm’s Adreno GPUs in Snapdragon SoCs.
All three GPU branding are spread across a diverse portfolio so you can’t say that one is better than the other. Having said that, the best smartphone GPUs often belong to Qualcomm camp.
You don’t get to pick and choose
So far, we have addressed some come factors involved which most users tend to ask about. These are not the only factors that matter, though. The type of RAM supported (LPDDR3 VS LPDDR4), the choice between single channel and dual channel memory interface, GPU used, GPS, Modem, and 4G LTE bands supported, Fast charging, Display resolution supported, Camera resolution supported, Codecs supported, etc. are other factors involved.
While deciding for your next smartphone, you don’t need to go into these details as you don’t get to pick and choose the components for your smartphone SoCs. Besides you often have no control over and don’t get to know what features OEMs have opted to enable. For instance, many Helio X10 powered phones don’t make use of 120fps refresh rate support for displays.
The article will help you understand the technical jargon in reviews and guide you regarding what exactly you should be looking for, but you should still rely on such full reviews to gauge the performance of a smartphone.
Give it to me straight:
Here is our take on some popular chipsets and associated remarks
|Popular Entry Level SoCs|
|Snapdragon 410||Fit for basic usage, go for 2GB RAM and 16GB storage alongside.|
|MediaTek MT6735||MediaTeks rival for Snapdragon 410, which we consider slightly better performer|
|Snapdragon 415||Improved Snapdragon 410 with double cores and better RAM speed, should improve overall performance and multi-tasking|
|Snapdragon 212||Quite good for entry level market (32 Bit SoC)|
|Popular Mid-Range SoCs|
|MT6752||8 core SoC which had mild heating issues, has already phased out and has been replaced by MT6753|
|MT6753||Lower performance and weaker GPU than MT6753, In-adequate gaming performance.|
|MT6755 (Helio P10)||A Big.LITTLE chip which improves power efficiency, borrows from both Helio X10 and MT6752, and is plagued with gaming related issues.|
|Helio X10||One of the best MediaTek processor in 2015, a bit harsh on battery though|
|Helio X20||Upcoming Deca-core processor with 3 clusters (4+4+2)|
|Snapdragon 615||The chipset had arbitrary performance issues|
|Snapdragon 616||An update to 616, which didn’t fix much|
|Snapdragon 650||Brings Cortex A72 cores to mid-range price, has powerful GPU, very exciting|
|Snapdragon 652||Similar to Snapdragon 650, but has 4 Cortex A72 cores instead of 2|
|Popular High-End SoCs|
|Snapdragon 810||Last year Qualcomm flagship, which was plagued with numerous issues|
|Snapdragon 820||The next best thing from Qualcomm, expected to be on all major high-end Android phones this year|
|Exynos 7420||The best chipset of 2015 used first in Samsung flagship phones|
|Exynos 8890||Upgrade to Exynos 7420 which will challenge Snapdragon 820 this year|